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How to Keep Your Phone From Ruining Your Next Trip

With people dying taking selfies and catching Pokémon in inappropriate places, it’s time to rethink how we use our phones when we travel.

You don’t have to be a GenX-er to acknowledge that mobile technology can be a blessing and a curse when you travel.

The blessing part is obvious—guidebooks are much more portable in digital form, and apps packed with travel content (like those from Just Ahead and, of course, ours) can provide a great service. Heck, even GPS-enabled maps make our lives easier when we’re exploring new places around the world.

The curse part? Well that’s a bit subtler. 

Over the past few months, we’ve read countless articles about travelers messing up their lives because they focused more on their phones than they did on the world around them. Last week, for instance, a German man died at Machu Picchu when he fell while posing for a picture he recruited a (horribly unlucky) fellow tourist to take. The week before that, a woman was charged by an elk at Yellowstone National Park while she tried to take a selfie with the animal.

We also have read stories about people using their phones inappropriately—such as taking selfies in sacred parts of the Taj Mahal, at the Sistine Chapel, and at Auschwitz.

Now, of course, we have Pokémon Go—the augmented reality game that challenges players to explore the real world to capture virtual creatures they can see only when they look through their phones. 

Some of us here at AFAR are big fans of this game, going so far in a recent blog post to say that the competition has created a new type of flaneurs, that it gets travelers to explore new places deeper and further than before. 

Others of us—well, let’s just say others of us are more skeptical. 

One of the reasons for this skepticism is that many people tend to get carried away with trendy toys. The fact that the National Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery had to issue statements banning the games proves this point perfectly. Park rangers at a number of national monuments and memorials around Washington, D.C., have also told players not to play the game at these sites. Whether you like Pokémon or not, there’s no excuse for chasing them down in these reflective, solemn spots.

Another reason we haters diss Pokémon: It’s augmented reality, not the real thing. Sure, the game gets people out and about. And, yes, for people who otherwise might be sedentary, ambulating probably is a healthy change of pace. But the indulgences of fake reality never trump the wonders of the actual world—even if the fake world is cool and the real world has some warts (here’s looking at you, Brexit).

The bottom line: If the goal of travel is to connect with the people and heart and soul of a new place, it’s hard to accomplish that when you’re staring into a cell phone screen.

Here’s a small anecdote that illustrates this point. Last week, while I was on assignment filming video in Las Vegas, I spotted UFC fighter Conor McGregor, who was in town for a fight, walking right toward me. I gave him a “Wazzup?” nod. McGregor nodded back. Inside, that inimitable OMG-I-just-saw-a-celebrity adrenaline rush ensued. And none of it would have happened if I was staring into my phone.

So consider this a plea for moderation. If you’re using a map app to get around town, write down the directions so you can cast your eyes up. If you feel you must get photos of yourself with iconic creatures or iconic views, do so sparingly and safely. And if you want to run around chasing Pokémon, set aside a finite amount of time to do it in a finite part of a new city, but leave yourself time to explore organically, too.

It also pays to be mindful. Here’s a step-by-step list of how to evaluate whether or not it’s appropriate to take a selfie or play an interactive game in a particular spot:

1. Assess whether you’ll be trespassing when you gain access.

2. Scan for signage prohibiting the use of technology.

3. Perform a safety check to determine if using technology would put you in harm’s way.

4. Engage your empathy tool to consider whether using technology might offend others.

Often the best travel moments aren’t the ones you capture comprehensively with technology, but instead the encounters you experience offline and live to share the old-fashioned way—with words—again and again. You don’t have to be a travel writer to do that.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com